By Laurie Ball-Gisch – The summer of 2002 was the first time I encountered White Muscle Disease in our flock of purebred Icelandic sheep. It affected two ewes I had purchased bred in late winter. We were hit hard in early June here in Michigan with severely hot and humid weather. Knowing how selenium deficient our area is, I make sure that our sheep have access at all times to free choice minerals, which I mix with kelp, and we’ve never had a problem with selenium before. However, one day I noticed these two ewes were lying down in the field rather than grazing.
Suspecting selenium deficiency, I immediately gave them Bo-SE shots and started putting extra vitamin E in the drinking water. But as the heat held on and on, both of these ewes continued to suffer. The rest of the flock was fine through the extended heat wave, but we did install large industrial fans in the barn this summer to give the flock relief from the heat. Although these two ewes were still eating, it is obvious in retrospect that their nutritional needs were suffering, and their immune system was compromised. Having not dealt with White Muscle Disease before, I didn’t realize the ramifications to other areas of their health. Because they were still eating, and when checked at deworming times, their tissues were a nice pink (up until August), I didn’t supplement them with grain, which I would do if I ever encountered this problem again.
By August my ewe named “Libby,” developed bottle jaw just 21 days after the last deworming and also became severely anemic. I immediately dewormed the entire flock, and on checking the rest of them, all were nice and pink and healthy except the two ewes with White Muscle Disease and the ram lamb (twin) out of the other sick ewe. (Another point to note is that ewes who suffer from the heat and are lying down a lot, are not up enough so that their lambs can nurse as they need to-hence compromised lambs). Were I ever to encounter this problem again, I would pull any affected ewes and lambs into a smaller paddock and start graining them. A friend of mine had taken the other affected ewe and her twins and was nursing along the two who were also showing signs of anemia.
My Libby was not recovering from White Muscle Disease, even after aggressive deworming and iron shots, as well as other vitamin and selenium shots. The bottle jaw went away within 24 hours but she had lost her appetite and a few days later the bottle jaw was back and I dewormed with another chemical. Within a week of discovering and treating the bottle jaw, she stopped eating completely, and I was increasingly afraid that she was starving to death. I wasn’t sure what to feed sheep who refuse to eat while ill with White Muscle Disease. She could not be enticed to eat any concoction of corn, grain, etc. By the second week she could barely walk. Every few steps she had to lie down. It got so bad that she was eating dirt and every morning I expected to find her dead. It got so horrible to watch that I actually mentioned to my husband that I thought it might be kindest to put her down, because I couldn’t bear to watch her starve to death from White Muscle Disease and in spite of all efforts I could think of, she was not improving.
The turning point came when I found time to be cleaning my desk off (rare), and I found a page I had copied a year before from an article in Black Sheep Newsletter about using apple cider vinegar for livestock health (Issue 53, Fall 1987). The article was written by Barry Simpson for Christchurch Press (New Zealand) and reported the experiences Mr. Rupert Martin had incorporating apple cider vinegar into his livestock management practices. The story caught my eye afresh that day, and I started glancing over it and the words “…also beneficial for the treatment of mastitis, anemia, milk fever…” jumped out at me.
I immediately went out and drenched Libby with cider vinegar and water mixed 1:1 using 20 ml per the recommended dosage in the article. The rest of that day Libby refused to eat or move.
The next morning I sent my husband out because I was convinced she would be dead from White Muscle Disease. When he came back in I asked him “Is she dead?” and he said very casually, “She looks fine.”
“What do you mean, she looks fine?”
“She came running to me.”
I thought he was crazy, convinced he didn’t even know which sheep I was talking about. So I ran outside to check on Libby and to my surprise, saw her standing at the mineral feeder. When she saw me she “bbbaaaeeed” loudly and came running to me! (This ewe normally does come running noisily whenever she sees me, looking for a handout, but I hadn’t seen her run all summer, and she hadn’t made a sound in over 2 weeks). Her tongue, which the day before had been gray, was now pink.
I quickly got her some grain, which she gobbled up, and then she trotted out to the pasture to join the rest of the flock. This was the first day in two months that she stayed out in the field all day and I did not see her lie down once.
Libby made a miraculous and full recovery within 24 hours of being drenched with cider vinegar to treat White Muscle Disease. When the weather hit 90+ degrees again in September, she didn’t show any of the previous signs of stiff muscles and upon regular checks, her tissues have remained bright pink/red and healthy.
I immediately phoned my friend and suggested she drench the other ewe and her sick lamb. The next day she called me to say that the lamb was out running and playing with the other lambs and the ewe was up and grazing for the first full day since she had been ill.
We have started drenching our entire flock once a month to improve overall health and fleece quality. During our regular de-worming sheep schedule, if I notice any sheep with paler tissues, they get a double dose. Additionally, I also pour cider vinegar into their drinking water at least once a week.
On a Lighter Note
I’ve read that cider vinegar used in the ewes’ drinking water can increase the chances of having more ewe lambs born. We had a 70 percent ram crop this past year, so it will be interesting to see if that ratio changes now that we are incorporating cider vinegar into our flock health management! You can try this homemade apple cider vinegar recipe on your homestead.
A search of the internet for “cider vinegar” led to hundreds of websites extolling the health benefits of cider vinegar in humans. I remember my grandmother always had cider vinegar and oil at the table to use on her salads and greens. You can even get cider vinegar tablets now if you don’t want to use the vinegar itself! A friend said she puts one tablespoon of cider vinegar with one tablespoon of honey in an 8 ounce glass of water and drinks that once a day to stay healthy-and she’s never sick! My father has been fighting cancer for four years and had developed severe anemia this past summer due to the chemotherapy he was undergoing. At my suggestion, my mother started having him drink vinegar four times a day in water (sweetened with honey). She had been having to give him shots for the anemia and they have now been able to stop the shots, as his red blood cell count is now in the normal range. He no longer has to nap in the afternoon, and he’s keeping busy from morning until evening with his various hobbies and activities.
Mr. Martin’s Original Speech
Following is the original speech presented by Mr. Rupert Martin to the International Congress of Black and Coloured Sheep Breeders in the late 1980s. Unfortunately Mr. Martin has passed away, but I was able to contact Mrs. Martin through Redwood Cellars and she granted me permission to reprint excerpts of his original speech here:
“My wife Grace and I have been livestock farming for more than 50 years. We run 1000 natural coloured sheep, 1000 white Romneys and 30 head of cattle at our Redwood Valley farm near Nelson. We market all our coloured wool, skins and yarns from our farm. All the products from our coloured sheep are sold direct to the consumer-even the meat.
I was the manager of the company farm in Nelson which took 5,000 acres (2,020 hectares) of waste and scrub land to pasture. We went from no stock to running 6,000 ewes and replacements, which gave us a flock of 12,000 head to shear. We also farmed 2,000 cattle.
With such large stock numbers we had stock health problems, often in a big way, which were difficult to get on top of. The main problem was grass staggers (U.S.: grass tetany; hypomagnesemia).
I knew cider vinegar was used on horses, but no-one would tell me why. So in desperation one day when I had two young lambs dehydrated and down with grass staggers, I decided to try the cider vinegar on them.
When I told the makers of the vinegar what I had in mind they said to be careful, and to dilute the vinegar a bit. I gave the lambs a cupful each and the next day they were up and grazing. So I gave them a bit more for luck.
That was in the February. Our summer was very hot and we had drought conditions. Much to our surprise in May these two lambs were in better condition than the rest, except that they had a break in their wool.
This led us to do some trial work. In our first trial we drenched the sheep once a month from weaning in November to shearing the following October.
We had four groups, and kept the wool of each group separate. The wool was all sold by auction, and the wool from the sheep drenched with cider vinegar made NZ$1.43 a head more than the rest. We were getting quite excited with our find but no one would believe us. Still, we carried on using more and more of the vinegar.
At this time I was lambing 2,600 two-tooth ewes and I believed they were deficient in iodine. I mixed minerals in with the cider vinegar and drenched just before lambing. During lambing in previous years I was going around the sheep three or four times a day, and assisting up to 14 ewes per round.
The very first time after we had used the minerals mixed in with the cider vinegar we reduced our problems at lambing down to assisting only two ewes per day. The lamb death rate at birth was reduced by a massive 80 percent. Well this was good news for us, and for the next 15 years we drenched our sheep three weeks before the rams went out, and then six weeks before lambing. We drenched the ewes again at three weeks before lambing, and found the results were very good.
I was asked to speak at the local branch meeting of the Black and Coloured Sheep Breeders Association on stock health. I joined the association, and felt I had something to offer.
Cider Vinegar Affects Wool Growth
Stock health problems and marketing of our coloured wools were then the two main problems to deal with. I had a few coloured sheep, and their wool was given to friends and staff. I started using a coloured ram over the ewes, and found that quality of the stock was a problem too. Although some good fleeces were produced, there were many rejects. So I decided to drench every month with 20cc of cider vinegar per sheep. The results were amazing. We shore in May, and sold more wool in a day than we expected to sell in a year from our woolshed operation. That went on for two and a half days, and sales have been steady ever since.
We found that the cider vinegar seemed to help disperse the grease in the wool right along the fibre, making it softer and easier to shear.
I still couldn’t convince people that what I was doing was good, so I bought vinegar and gave it to friends to try. It took a long time to get going, but when the news media took an interest it just took off. This spurred me on to do more research. We found grass staggers disappeared altogether in sheep; sleepy sickness was easily cured. Scouring in calves was also easily cured. In fact, any disorder the animals had appeared to benefit from the cider vinegar.
Effects on Skins
When I first started out with the coloured wools, the natural coloured skins had no value. But the first shipment of pelts I sent to be tanned were all stolen. That proved they were worth something, so I kept going. The next shipment got through alright. They were quite easy to sell so we brought in skins and sheep for slaughter. We found we could produce the skin okay, but had up to 30 per cent of the skins grading out as seconds. That was too high, with the quality only good to average. After looking through the tannery and inspecting the skins we found that to produce a variation in colours, and to obtain large skins we had to use skins from older sheep.
Then I discovered the skins which I had brought in were not as good as my own. That led me to believe cider vinegar was playing a part in giving us quality skins. Now we prefer to condition the sheep on our own farm before slaughter, and rejects are down to one per cent or less. Our sheepskins just sell themselves. With the number of skins we were producing, we had to market the meat.
Effects on Meat
For years friends had been telling us there was ‘something’ about Redwood Valley meat-it was sweeter. No one knew why they liked it but they did, and our customers just grew and grew.
We were now at the stage where we can sell the meat faster than we can sell the skins.
I have found marketing wool, skins and meat of coloured sheep very easy, especially with the help of cider vinegar. We have to remember in our marketing that quality is the main criterion.”
At the fall shearing, as the shearer was working on Libby, she looked up and said “there’s a break in her wool” and I said that I expected a wool break because of her battle with White Muscle Disease. She asked me how recently Libby had been ill, and I told her just a month ago and she asked me to come look at the wool. She pointed out over an inch and a half of new wool growth behind the break and commented that this was an amazing amount of wool for an animal to grow out in just a month.
For a ewe who had been so sick to make such a remarkable recovery to be able to grow out this amount of wool, while also gaining back her condition-so that she is now in prime condition for breeding is why I call her my “miracle ewe.”
Libby catches the eye of anybody who sees her and her amazing recovery from White Muscle Disease may say as much about cider vinegar as a cure as it might about her strong constitution and genetics.
She is in a breeding group now, and I am very curious to see how she will do next lambing season. It’s important to note that she lambed twins unassisted as a yearling and I’ve included here a photo of her when she came to our farm in February.
In addition to the pregnancy, twins and lactating, she herself had an enormous growth spurt that spring and summer. This may have been partially why she ended up [appearing to be] selenium deficient. I am optimistic that she will have no health problems next summer.
The Lavender Fleece Farm and Studio is located in mid-Michigan. We raise purebred registered Icelandic sheep with a special interest in preserving the rare leader sheep genetics of this beautiful, yet very useful and marketable triple-purpose sheep. In addition to shepherding full time, running a full time business and raising a family, I am currently the President and Newsletter Editor for the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America (ISBONA). For more information about Icelandic sheep, please contact: Laurie Ball-Gisch, 3826 N. Eastman Rd., Midland, Michigan 48642. 989/832-4908 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: http://www.lavenderfleece.com
Laurie Ball-Gisch is an artist/educator turned shepherdess. She revels in seeing artistic beauty day by day-In the eyes of her growing children and in her farm. Her current “palette” is a field of Icelandic sheep: a color-balanced painting always in progress, one she hopes will never be finished. A former public school teacher, she yet educates the public about the joys and rewards of raising Icelandic sheep, and working their incredibly versatile fiber. “My current curriculum is my farm and my teacher/mentors are my sheep,” she says, “They’re the ones who teach me what it is to be a shepherdess.”
Originally published in sheep! January/February 2003 and regularly vetted for accuracy.